Wimbledon Briefing: Is serving fast uncool now? Is rain unfair? And why so many comebacks? (2024)

Follow live coverage of the eighth day of Wimbledon 2024 today

Wimbledon 2024 has its first week in the books, as the round of 16 finishes up business in the men’s and women’s singles draws.

Here, The Athletic looks at the takeaways from the opening seven days in south-west London.

A vindication of surface mastery in tennis?

For two decades, chatter about hom*ogenization has chiselled away at the mastery of the three surfaces of tennis. Grass got slower. Clay got faster. ”Everything plays like a hard court.”

Most of this is true, with the thornie*st idiosyncrasies of each surface pruned a little. But grass still remains a separator requiring some combination of affinity, experience and acclimation. Just ask Iga Swiatek.

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The women’s world No 1 took a step backwards this year in her quest to one day win the Grand Slam that every player craves, on the only surface on which she is yet to hoist the biggest trophy. Swiatek won the 2024 French Open on the second weekend of June, then opted not to enter a grass-court tournament in the run-up to Wimbledon.

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She played one such tournament last year between a win at the French Open and the start of Wimbledon, reaching the semifinals in Bad Homburg, Germany, before withdrawing with illness. At Wimbledon, she then made the quarterfinals, where she lost in three sets to Elina Svitolina.

This time round, Swiatek lost to Yulia Putintseva, who won the grass-court title in Birmingham last month. Putintseva owes her form to playing as much as possible on the surface and is now 8-0 on Mother Nature’s finest in 2024, after going 2-6 in the previous three years.

Wimbledon Briefing: Is serving fast uncool now? Is rain unfair? And why so many comebacks? (2)

Putintseva’s grass-court form made her a horrible match-up for Swiatek (Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

Emma Raducanu’s first-week success here comes in part from her past comfort and success on the SW19 grass, including a run to the fourth round as an 18-year-old, but she also devoted hard focus to the surface in the past six weeks, rather than pushing through qualifying at the French Open.

The men’s draw is dotted with similar tales. Casper Ruud lost in the second round, along with Stefanos Tsitsipas, two standout players who focus so heavily on clay and treat grass as an afterthought.

Swiatek’s plan for preparation in 2025? More rest.

Matt Futterman

Has service speed had its time in the sun?

There was a time, certainly in the 1990s, when it felt like how quickly you served would correlate directly with how successful you would be — especially playing on grass. Hitting high speeds was a real badge of honour, a show of strength.

Then the Big Four came along — none of whom had huge service speeds, relatively speaking — and the dial shifted.

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There was suddenly something a bit naff about serving bombs but being outsmarted by Novak Djokovic or Andy Murray, two of the best returners the sport has ever seen. In his 2016 Wimbledon final win against Milos Raonic, Murray not only returned a 147mph (237kph) serve, he won the point. Roger Federer did the same thing to a 140mph delivery from Andy Roddick at the 2007 U.S. Open, sending it back to Roddick’s toes and leading the American to puff out his cheeks.

Since the days of John McEnroe, Stefan Edberg, Pete Sampras, Richard Krajicek, Goran Ivanisevic et al, the huge male server has been rebranded as something of a figure of fun, mostly because its leading exponents don’t tend to win very much, able to blast down unsubtle bombs but unable to craft points outside of them.

The idea of the “servebot” has come to prominence in contemporary tennis to describe that sort of player.

Giovanni Mpetshi Perricard, with his 105 aces thus far, has been labelled in this way, but it’s a reductive analysis of a player whose net game is like a duvet and who can hit second serves around 117mph without constantly double-faulting. He can move, too, and all of these qualities are amplified on the Wimbledon grass, propelling 21-year-old Frenchman into the second week.

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So it was interesting to hear Ben Shelton, who served at 149mph at the U.S. Open last year, saying it’s often been a case of less is more at this year’s Wimbledon.

“I’ve really been focusing on trying not to hit big serves during this tournament,” Shelton said after beating Denis Shapovalov in round three on Saturday, helped by several extremely effective kick serves. “My off-pace serves have been working really well, so I’ve been trying to mix it up.”

Wimbledon Briefing: Is serving fast uncool now? Is rain unfair? And why so many comebacks? (4)

Ben Shelton has purposefully decelerated his serve to make it more dangerous (Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)

Shelton added that this was also partly about preserving strength for the rest of the tournament, but said it’s good to keep throwing in the odd huge serve as a reminder to his opponents: “I also think it’s important every once in a while to speed it up and show the guy that I can hit the serve that’s big, so you do have to respect it and be ready for it.”

Charlie Eccleshare

What makes a good draw a great draw?

Coming off knee surgery on June 5, Novak Djokovic needed a healthy bit of good fortune on draw day, when the tournament officials pull players’ names out of a bag and slot them onto a bracket. He got it.

He faced the world’s 123rd-ranked player in the first round and the 277th-ranked one in the second, the kinds of match-ups that essentially allowed him to test his surgically repaired right leg at roughly half- and then three-quarter speed. In the third round, he faced Alexei Popyrin of Australia, the world No 47. It was a decent test that forced Djokovic to rev up to what looked to be about 80 per cent. That’s a pretty friendly first week.

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Coco Gauff, the women’s world No 2, didn’t need too much help but got it anyway.

Aryna Sabalenka, the world No 3 and her biggest obstacle (on paper) to making the final, dropped out before the tournament started. She drew the world No 51, Caroline Dolehide, in the first round, then got 142nd-ranked Anca Todoni and qualifier Sonay Kartal, who is world No 298.

This is one of the perks of being among the best tennis players in the world. It can also become a problem.

After her defeat to world No 17 Emma Navarro in the fourth round on Sunday, Gauff said: “There’s no easy draw. There’s no cakewalk or anything. This is competitive sport”.

Yes — but there are disparities. Against Navarro on Centre Court, there was a sudden increase in not just stakes, but narrative: playing a compatriot, playing a seed (19th), playing as a favorite, and playing a former friend she knows from juniors. Playing three opponents with an average ranking of No 163 is not the best preparation for that.

Wimbledon Briefing: Is serving fast uncool now? Is rain unfair? And why so many comebacks? (5)

Gauff’s serene first week at Wimbledon was aided by some kind match-ups (Ben Stansall/AFP via Getty Images)

For her part, Raducanu has been working her magic from the U.S. Open she won as a qualifier in 2021, both on the court and with her draw luck.

Her first-round opponent, Ekaterina Alexandrova, the No 22 seed, scratched just before their match. Renata Zarazua, the world No 98, subbed in. Then Raducanu played a fourth-round match yesterday against qualifier Lulu Sun, ranked 123rd, for a spot in the final eight. The Brit lost.

Matt Futterman

Is rain in tennis the great divider?

If you ever want a reminder of how two-tiered tennis is, a bit of rain is always helpful.

When the rain comes and the schedule gets messed up, it’s the players below the very top of the sport who suffer. They are the ones who tend to be allocated the courts without roofs, so their matches get moved around and delayed, building up anxiety and challenging them physically by asking them to keep warming up and switching off as the weather waxes and wanes.

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Often, matches get held overnight, which means playing on consecutive days — potentially against someone who’s had a day off, if they are up against one of the top players.

At the French Open this year, the top four players on the men’s and women’s draws had pretty serene progress through the first week, when they were almost exclusively playing on the courts at Roland Garros with roofs. They were also up against opponents who’d been scrapping it out on the outside courts and battling the physical and emotional exhaustion brought about by days spent waiting around.

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The first week at Wimbledon hasn’t been as bad rain-wise as Paris was but, on Sunday, No 3 and No 1 seeds, Carlos Alcaraz and Jannik Sinner, had that same advantage. Both were facing opponents in Ugo Humbert and Shelton who had finished their rain-delayed third-round matches Saturday afternoon.

Wimbledon Briefing: Is serving fast uncool now? Is rain unfair? And why so many comebacks? (7)

As at the French Open, rain has been a variable in results at Wimbledon (Francois Nel/Getty Images)

After her rain-delayed win against 20th-seeded Beatriz Haddad Maia on Saturday, Danielle Collins, the women’s No 11 seed, explained how those on-off days take a toll: “It’s just about staying physically and mentally primed. It’s hard to maintain when you’re doing so for so many hours. It was probably about a 12-hour day altogether, at least.

“We had the match in front of us too, and they had stopped a few times because of the rain. So some back-and-forth in that match, too. Sometimes I thought I may be getting close to going on, and then…”

As long as there are only a couple of roofed courts at the sport’s majors, there is no obvious solution to this. The best players will always be put on the biggest courts; it would be a tough sell to fans who’d paid a lot of money for tickets to those arenas to say that, for the sake of fairness, they’d be watching some less-heralded names.

As with so many areas of the sport, the rich will keep getting richer.

Charlie Eccleshare

Another new champion in the women’s draw?

Waiting for the next dominant woman at Wimbledon? A player capable of collecting singles titles in bunches in the tradition of the Williams sisters, Steffi Graf or Martina Navratilova?

Sorry. It’s probably going to be a minute.

Coming into this tournament, there had been seven different Wimbledon women’s champions in the past seven years. Only three of those seven were in the 2024 draw. After week one, just one of the seven is left: 2022 winner Elena Rybakina, whose health has been dicey for months.

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Part of this likely has something to do with the dominant women’s player of the past few years, Swiatek, not being fluent on the surface just yet. Add the best-of-three-sets format, in which top players have less time to clamber out of a hole against a peaking opponent, and it’s easy to understand why pressure arrives quickly in women’s tennis.

Wimbledon Briefing: Is serving fast uncool now? Is rain unfair? And why so many comebacks? (8)

Elena Rybakina is the only player left in the women’s draw with experience of lifting the Wimbledon trophy (Glyn Kirk/AFP via Getty Images)

Finally, other than Rybakina, Sabalenka and Gauff, there are not so many difference-making serves in women’s tennis that produces batches of free points. Even those three are capable of tossing up an awful serving day. Swiatek has demonstrably turned her serve into more of a weapon in the past few months, but it’s not quite yet at that level.

Fittingly, nearly all of this was exemplified in Swiatek’s match against Yulia Putintseva.

The first set went according to plan. Then Putintseva peaked, revving into life and forcing Swiatek to stay with her rhythm by bouncing between points and harrying her at every turn. Yes, the grass played a part, but this was also about currents of momentum and a lack of time to switch them off.

At one point, Putintseva hit just one unforced error in 11 games. There is little anyone can do against that, world No 1 or not.

Matt Futterman

Why so many five-set comebacks?

The first week of the men’s tournament was dominated by comebacks from two sets down.

After four days’ play, there had been nine such results, which equalled the Wimbledon Open Era record with just two rounds complete. That record was duly beaten on Saturday night when No 15 seed Holger Rune came back to beat Quentin Halys.

The players involved in these 10 matches have generally been at a loss to explain why they keep happening, and whether they’ll continue. The Open Era record at a Grand Slam tournament is 14, from the 2002 Australian Open.

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Rune’s win over Halys encapsulates some of the working theories, however.

Firstly, this was a heavily rain-interrupted match — it even finished on a different court to the one it had started on, and No 1 Court appeared to suit Rune’s big-match temperament more than Court 18 had appeared to. Many more of these comeback wins have also been rain-interrupted. The delays allow the losing player to regroup while forcing the player in front — often someone who was not expected to win, such as Halys or world No 201 Paul Jubb earlier in the week against 74th-ranked Thiago Seyboth Wild — to stop and think about the great position they are in.

Wimbledon Briefing: Is serving fast uncool now? Is rain unfair? And why so many comebacks? (9)

Holger Rune thrived on an electric No 1 Court to win from two sets down (Henry Nicholls/AFP via Getty Images)

Halys is also ranked more than 200 places below Rune at 220th, so the Dane mounting a comeback wasn’t thatmuch of a surprise. The same could be said of world No 10 Grigor Dimitrov coming back against Shang Juncheng, who is ranked 91st. Some of the top players are creating the necessary conditions for this comeback record to be broken.

Thirdly, Halys is a powerful server, who, in Rune’s words, “goes big on his return”. Against players who are big servers but not reliable returners, it doesn’t take much for a match to change — especially on as slick a surface as grass. That happened with Rune and Halys, and many of the other comeback matches. Jubb said after losing to Seyboth Wild that, after the first couple of sets, he couldn’t get a read on his opponent’s serve.

Dimitrov didn’t think that the rash of comeback wins had necessarily inspired his own against Shang on Thursday, but there might be some players in the second week who won’t feel quite so despairing should they find themselves 2-0 down.

Charlie Eccleshare

Are Grand Slams and social media any closer to being friends?

One of the most popular off-court developments to come out of this year’s Wimbledon is a video series on X.

‘Overheard At Wimbledon’ captures spectators deep in conversation, whether about the weather, the tennis, or when they’re going to get their next round of strawberries and cream.

Some of these conversations 🤣

Presenting another episode of Overheard at #Wimbledon pic.twitter.com/HFFc70i75X

— Wimbledon (@Wimbledon) July 7, 2024

It’s fun, inventive, and taps into the desire for “authentic” content around events of all kinds. It’s also staged, because the people have microphones on, but that isn’t really the point. Wimbledon 2024 has also leaned into tennis TikTok much more heavily than in previous years, probably after seeing the success of the U.S. Open’s efforts to remix and remake the sport using its visual language.

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So it rankled when, in the same week that this was released, women’s world No 82 Daria Saville — who has close to a million followers on TikTok as dasha_tofu — posted a petition calling on Grand Slam tournaments to relax copyright restrictions over video footage from matches.

“Because of copyright rules, we are not allowed to post any footage of us competing,” Australia’s Saville said, over a stitch of a video with Paige Lorenze, a fashion influencer and partner of men’s world No 13 Tommy Paul, who showed off her tournament outfit with a video looking onto court.

The BBC holds the broadcast rights to Wimbledon in the UK, with the contract expiring in 2027. The relationship between tennis players, fans, social media, tournaments, and media rights is bigger than one tournament — and a few good-quality videos — but the contrast is a reminder of how complicated that relationship is.

James Hansen

Tell us your first-week takeaways, and what you want to see in the second…

(Top photo: Julian Finney/Getty Images; design: Eamonn Dalton)

Wimbledon Briefing: Is serving fast uncool now? Is rain unfair? And why so many comebacks? (2024)
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